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John F. Kerry

The Massachusetts Senator, a Decorated Veteran, Mixes Strong Liberal Credentials With a Pro-War Stand on Iraq

June 15, 2003|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

Early one evening in the fall of 1984, John F. Kerry was flying home from a campaign stop in western Massachusetts when his helicopter was forced to make an emergency landing.

An engine light signaled trouble, so the pilot touched down in an open field in Framingham just as Jerome Anderson was driving past. Anderson, a doctor, threw his yellow Volkswagen in reverse, backed up and called out, making sure none of the four passengers aboard the chopper was hurt.

The candidate, unshaken, strode across the grassy meadow, thrust out his hand and seized the opportunity. "John Kerry," he said, as if the two had just met on the midway of a county fair. "I'm running for U.S. Senate."

Kerry is known for his coolness under fire -- along with his ambition. An oft-decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, he has thrived for more than 25 years in the close-quarters combat of Massachusetts politics, winning that first Senate contest and three more that followed, including a titanic 1996 struggle with the state's popular Republican governor, William Weld.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 17, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 71 words Type of Material: Correction
Kerry profile -- An article Sunday in Section A misstated the type of ship on which Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) served during one of his two tours of duty in the Vietnam War. He served as skipper of a patrol boat for one tour, rather than two. He previously served as an officer on a guided-missile frigate. In addition, the article gave Kerry's age incorrectly. He is 59, not 60.

The bigger questions as Kerry seeks the White House are whether his military heroism can shield him from criticism that he is too liberal and whether his personality is too standoffish to connect with voters. Not that either is necessarily true.

Kerry, 60, has deviated enough from Democratic orthodoxy -- supporting free trade, welfare reform and teacher accountability -- to assert that the liberal label is not a perfect fit. And his easy banter with firefighters in small-town Iowa and his gusto in joining a patriotic singalong at a Des Moines VFW post suggest that the stodgy stereotype is also a bit dated.

"The aloof stuff came from his initial forays" in state politics, said Lou DiNatale, a longtime Kerry watcher and political science professor at the University of Massachusetts who has seen him loosen up considerably over time.

Still, the step up to a national campaign hasn't always gone well. Surgery in February for prostate cancer slowed Kerry for weeks, and his complicated position on Iraq -- pro-war, anti-Bush -- has fed a reputation for vacillation. Only now, after falling back into the pack despite his early anointment as the front-runner, does Kerry sense he has hit his stride.

"You have to feel it to understand it," he said of the "pace and intensity" of running for president. "The country kind of gets bigger

For a man with blue blood in his veins, homes in ritzy Georgetown and Beacon Hill, and a wife worth hundreds of millions of dollars -- she is the widow of Sen. John Heinz, heir to the food fortune -- Kerry comes across as a pretty regular guy. He windsurfs, roller-blades, uses four-letter words, loves cold beer and ice cream, rides a Harley and plays ice hockey -- details his staff is eager to highlight, save for the swearing, to take a bit of starch out of Kerry's collar.

His long face and deep-set eyes lend a certain gravity to Kerry's remarks, whatever the subject. He talks too long, aides fret, and too often favors the windy speaking style that passes for great oratory on the Senate floor. But a sly, goofy side peeks through when the 6-foot-4 candidate clambers aboard playground equipment to amuse his staffers between campaign stops or hunts down a reporter who gets lost on the way to a news conference, posing on a cellphone as a detective from the missing persons bureau.

Kerry himself cedes nothing to Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (the son of a milkman) or North Carolina Sen. John Edwards (the son of a millworker) in the man-of-the-people department. If a patrician background were a disqualifier for the White House, "we would have lost some of our great presidents," Kerry says, citing Thomas Jefferson, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy during a lengthy interview this month. "There is no cookie-cutter formula that says just because you were born here or there you ought to be president. It's not important where you come from, it's what you fight for and where you stand on the issues that people are looking at."

That said, Kerry may be the one Democratic presidential hopeful with the most riding on his biography. A product of the Boston Brahmin Forbes family and exclusive prep schools, Kerry volunteered for the Navy and requested service in Vietnam after graduating from Yale University in 1966. It was a sense of duty that motivated him, Kerry later said, along with the idealism of the times. He served two combat tours as a patrol boat skipper, earning a Bronze Star, Silver Star and three Purple Hearts.

Kerry returned from the war disillusioned and became a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, making him a national figure before he was 30.

His first try for political office, however, hardly boded well.

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